Saturday, 7 July 2012

If Devon had relied on the forecasts of 1968...

How much faith should we have in forecasts? ECC (now Aggregate Industries) based their planning application to quarry over 800 acres of East Devon in 1968 on forecasts. Now in 2012 DCC has decided it needs to identify new sites for future sand and gravel quarrying, again on the basis of a forecast, which has identified a shortfall of reserves some time over the next 20 years. 

The Public Inquiry of 1968, deciding the fate of those 800 acres, heard a number of forecasts, and now with the benefit of hindsight we can see how accurate they were. ECC's submission to the Inquiry forecast that "58)...the demand from the two complexes in the year 2000 will be 2.42 million tons, made up of 1.23 for Blackhill and 1.19 for Rockbeare. This is based on a probable increase between 1966 and 1980 of 6.3% per year, following the official forecast rate of increase, and an increase of 4.5% between 1980 and the year 2000, based on official forecast population increases for the South West". The Planning Authority challenged this forecast, and thought "it should be 2.11 million tons". In the year 2000 the actual figure for Devon turned out to be only 0.8 million tonnes, or just 33% of the forecast; in 2011 it was even lower at 0.44 million tonnes or 18%. Their submission also maintained that "55) Nationally, the production of sand and gravel increased annually between 1958 and 1966, from 60 to 100 million tons, and the forecast for 1980 is 215 million tons." The actual national figure in 1980 was less than 100 million tonnes, or 45% of forecast.

Mr. Douglas Frank QC, acting for the Devon River Authority, East Devon Water Board and others, challenged these forecasts, "348) It is contended that no decision should be taken in the absence of a full investigation, to avoid another "Stanstead" case. The company have assessed future need far in excess of any normal period for making forecasts of demand, and on the theoretical basis of population estimates, which are noted for their inaccuracy. This may be inevitable in the case of development plans, or planning water resources, but they do not look 60 years ahead and population figures should not be relied on for a long period. It is equally dangerous to relate population to production in the past. 349) Who is to know what new materials or circumstances there will be in 40 years time? The official estimate is that there is not enough sand and gravel for more than 20 years. If this is right, then an alternative will have to be found, and it may be decided that it will be better to exploit the alternative than to do so much damage."

Mr. Frank's remarks proved to be the more prescient. How fortunate for Devon that the Inspector and Minister both decided that the applications to extend Blackhill, and open new sites at Colaton Raleigh and Straitgate "be not approved."

What are we to learn from this? Some may conclude that mineral companies and Planning Authorities are poor forecasters of future aggregate demand. Others, that long term forecasting is fraught with difficulty and that the Council must take the utmost care in allocating sites, preferred or with permission, before they are truly required, and before all the alternatives have been explored. At the end of 2010 the County had 9.62 million tonnes of sand and gravel reserves, over 20 years worth with the ever decreasing amounts used each year. Borrowing the Inspector's concluding remarks, which still seem relevant today, there may be "408) (p)...other land with less disadvantages, and it is not possible to say now that the need for the Straitgate site is in any way overriding. For this reason any approval would be premature, and my recommendation not to allow that application also is on that basis, apart from water supply considerations."